‘Iris’: Docu-portrait of a real character

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For Digital First Media

Fashion styles come and go. However, over the course of seven decades, Iris Apfel has been a fixture on the New York fashion scene.  The documentary,” Iris,” from Albert Maysles, pays tribute to her.

Now 94-years old, Iris sports trademark outsized glasses, busy prints, and most of all a wide array of accessories. This confers a unique look on her that some may consider extreme.

If you aren’t familiar with Iris, you might assume that she is a self-appointed doyenne of fashion, who is the pampered member of high society. If so, seeing this film will disabuse you of that specious notion.

As the film unfolds, we learn that Iris had a career as a shrewd businesswoman. Back in 1950, she and her husband, Carl, founded Old World Weavers. In that context, they visited Europe twice a year. There, they ferreted out the most beautiful of handmade fabrics and other objets d’art. These items had been made by a dying trade of artisans. Each time, the Apfels filled up a 40 foot container and brought the contents back to the United States.
As “Iris” captures, from 1950 to 1992, the Apfels took part in numerous design restoration projects. This included work at the White House for a succession of nine U.S. Presidents, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan and Clinton.

Despite her advanced years, the nonagenarian proves to be an articulate and candid subject. She disclaims that she is in any way conventionally attractive, insisting, “I don’t like pretty.” Instead, it becomes clear that Iris opted for developing a personal style of her own.

During the film, Iris discusses her decision not to have children and instead focus on her career. Of course, this was a somewhat revolutionary modus vivendi for a woman to pursue back in the mid-20th century. Iris and Carl have been married for more than 65 years. Over the course of the film, we repeatedly witness them doting on one another. Near the film’s conclusion, Carl became a centenarian and we attend his 100th birthday party.

Although the Apfels retired from Old World Weavers, Iris remains active as a lecturer and visiting professor for the University of Texas Austin. As the film depicts, students from that school visit Iris in New York. Iris discourses on the practical aspects of the fashion industry.

“Iris” represents the last film made by Albert Maysles, before his death at 87 earlier this year. A prolific documentarian, he spent many years collaborating with his brother, David. Together, they made several classic documentaries. Their “Gimme Shelter” captured the counterculture concert at Altamont in 1969. It had been organized by the Grateful Dead and touted as a West Coast version of Woodstock. However, the event turned violent and resulted in four fatalities. “Gray Gardens,” focused on cousins of Jackie Kennedy, who lived amidst squalor in a crumbling mansion. It was a stark counterpoint to the iconography of Camelot.

After David passed away of a stroke in 1987, Albert continued on without him. In 1999, he was named by Eastman Kodak as one of the 100 leading cinematographers in the entire world. In 2013, President Obama presented Maysles with the National Medal of Arts Award. In Noah Baumbach’s feature film, “While We’re Young,” the award winning documentarian, portrayed by Charles Grodin, was patterned on Albert Maysles. Indeed, footage from the Maysles Bothers’ documentary, “Experiment on 114th Street” is slyly inserted into Baumbach’s film.

“Iris” epitomizes the distinctive style practiced by the Maysles Bothers. They eschewed the use of an omniscient narrator, sound track, or other ancillary production flourishes to augment the text of the film. Instead, they opted for what some have termed a direct documentary approach.

A screen capture from a trailer to the documentary "Iris" at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fo8jwJ_2l0c

A screen capture from a trailer to the documentary “Iris” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fo8jwJ_2l0c

Like the other films made by the Maysles Brothers, “Iris” is allowed to unfold at a leisurely pace and has a certain random quality. It consists of Iris discoursing on her career and her philosophy of life. Rather than actively shaping the film, Maysles remains virtually passive, allowing it to unfold with minimal intervention. It is almost as if Maysles placed a camera on a tripod and left the room. The film spurns such salient biographical issues as where Apfel went to school (New York University for art history and the University of Wisconsin for art school), her stint as a journalist for “Women’s Wear Daily,” and when the couple sold Old World Weavers and retired (1992). However, Iris proves to be so engrossing that the viewer may overlook such obvious oversights.

Despite some disconcerting flaws in methodology, “Iris” provides an engaging and provocative docu-portrait of a real character.

*** PG-13 (for some strong language) 83 minutes. Magnolia Pictures

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year, he welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.



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